Mary’s Meals feeds one million children around the world every day. All the kids have to do is turn up to school and eat. Oliver Haenlein speaks to Scottish founder, Magnus MacFarlane Barrow.
During a trip to Malawi, Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow was taken to see a woman called Emma. “She was lying on the floor of her mud hut surrounded by her six young children, and was dying of AIDS,” he recounts. “I asked her eldest son, Edward, what he hoped for in life and he said ‘I want to have enough food to eat and to go to school one day’.”
This was the moment MacFarlane- Barrow, a former salmon farmer from Argyll, Scotland, was inspired to found Mary’s Meals, a charity that provides meals for children in places of learning in some of the world’s poorest communities.
That was in 2002, and the next year Mary’s Meals provided meals for 200 children in one Malawian primary school. Today over one million children, in 12 countries across four continents, receive Mary’s Meals every school day. In Malawi, 27 per cent of the primary school population benefits from the charity’s daily meals.
The ladder out of poverty
The idea is that by providing a meal in a place of education, chronically hungry children will not only be fed, but be encouraged into education, which Magnus tells me is “the first step on the ladder out of poverty”. He explains that there are an estimated 59 million children around the world who remain out of school due to hunger and poverty.
The largest feeding programme is in Malawi, which was recently ranked the poorest country in the world by the World Bank. The country also contains a huge number of children who have been orphaned, as well as many who are HIV positive and need regular and nutritious meals in order for their medication to work.
Mary’s Meals is also working in other areas where there is great need amongst children due to a variety of factors. In India, for example, low caste children and girls are not traditionally entitled to education, says Magnus; in Liberia where civil war meant a whole generation of children missed out on an education; and in South Sudan, where there is violent unrest today.
“Our vision is that every child receives one daily meal in their place of education and that all those who have more than they need, share with those who lack even the most basic things. And we believe that in this world of plenty, there is no reason this can’t be achieved.”
The long game
Magnus asserts that Mary’s Meals provides a sustainable model, not one that simply provides handouts. “Children want and need to go to school, and we’ve been hearing this message from children around the world since Mary’s Meals began,” he says.
“By providing daily food in school, Mary’s Meals enables chronically poor children to attend and gives them the energy required to learn in class. And the commitment required from the local people means Mary’s Meals is empowering the world’s poorest communities to work towards a positive solution together.
“I have been privileged to witness a generation of children who have completed their entire primary education with Mary’s Meals. The sustainable impact on the health, wellbeing and education of this generation is already evident and there are thousands of children who have already progressed on to successful careers, contributing to social, cultural and economic development. These graduates are more likely to be able to feed themselves and their families in future and more likely to send their children to school.”
Magnus finds himself at the helm of an organisation which is changing the lives of millions of people. But he tells me he didn’t always have such grand plans: “I was a fish farmer back in Argyll before I got involved in this. I actually started studying History at university, but I was much too shy and ended up coming home. I certainly didn’t have any plans to start a global organisation.”
In the years before Mary’s Meals, he first got involved with charity work after seeing footage of the Bosnian war on TV while having a pint with his brother Fergus in the local pub.
He says: “We’d visited the former Yugoslavia as teenagers and decided to do one small thing to help the people who were suffering there.
“We put out a little appeal to the local community for blankets, clothes and food that we could take over in a Land Rover as part of an aid convoy.We thought it would be a one-off, but when we returned, the shed was full of donations again. I took a year off work, intending to continue delivering the aid until the donations petered out. The donations kept flowing in, and it soon became clear we’d need to set up a registered charity, which we did—Scottish International Relief.”
Magnus’ work has come a long way, having started with a humble shed in Argyll filled with donations. He is overwhelmed by the success of his project: “When we put out word of that first appeal, we thought perhaps some friends of Mum and Dad and other local people would be interested, but the scale of the response was truly amazing and it has continued that way ever since.
“I have always believed in the innate goodness of people and their willingness to help others, but it’s a very powerful thing to see that in action every day.”
Bags of joy
Mary’s Meals has created other projects to try and make a difference in places like Malawi. One of these is the Backpack Project, which invites supporters to donate a backpack filled with essential educational and hygiene items to help children in school.
Magnus explains: “Most of the children enrolled in Mary’s Meals’ school feeding programmes don’t have basic learning tools like pencils or notebooks.
“The bags are collected here in the UK (and also in Austria and Germany) and shipped to Malawi, where they are distributed to the children, one school at a time and always without warning. More often than not, this backpack from a stranger thousands of miles away is the only gift these children have ever been given.
“I’ve had the privilege of witnessing a backpack distribution in Malawi and the joy that fills the room when the children receive these gifts is truly amazing and difficult to put across in words. It’s such a simple way to help, and lots of schools, churches, workplaces, and groups choose to help in this way.”
“Children are the future leaders of this world and with the right education and encouragement, they can change this world for the better.”
So who’s Mary?
The thinking behind the charity’s name is not immediately obvious. Mary is a reference to the mother of Jesus, since, the charity explains, she brought up her own child in poverty.
Magnus is quick to dismiss the idea that Mary’s Meals is a religious institution though. “Those of us who founded this work were inspired to do so by our Catholic faith, but at the same time we’re an organisation that’s open to people of all faiths or no faith,” he says.
Mary’s Meals now helps so many children in so many countries partly due to the work of its formidable network of volunteers. “I never cease to be amazed by the dedication and enthusiasm of our volunteers, both in our fundraising countries and our programme countries,” says Magnus.
“Quite simply, without our army of volunteers, Mary’s Meals could not operate. But at the same time, I understand it. I think the simplicity of what we do captures people, and the fact that everyone can contribute in some way to make a meaningful difference.”
The newest project is just across the border from Malawi in Zambia. Zambian children will now join the hundreds of thousands of Malawians, Kenyans, Haitians, Ugandans, Indians and Ecuadorians, to name just some of the countries in which Mary’s Meals works, who have a real route out of extreme poverty thanks to the work of Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow.
That pint down the local in Scotland, and that heart-breaking visit to Emma’s home in Malawi were moments that changed not just Magnus’ life, but consequently the lives of over a million children around the world today.
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